Matters of the Heart

Matters of the Heart

From beating heart to heart surgery ❤🌈

The surprise arrival of Lymm Life Magazine at 6.30am on a Friday morning with my picture emblazoned on the cover couldn’t have been more ironically timed. Maybe it was a lucky sign but the article also yielded lots of “heart-warming” messages on a day that I needed it more than anything, though no one would have known. I’m grateful for that timely coverage. It may also be the first and last time I get called a cover girl so I’ll take that too, even if my kids were sooo embarrassed 🤣 and I now have to endure their smirking faces and frequent jibes of “hail, oh ye point of light” whenever I pull them up on something.

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You see, three weeks prior to the magazine arriving, I’d been called the beating heart of Lymm ❤  by the PM after receiving his Points of Light award. Yet, at that moment, there I was about to head into hospital for a heart operation (short-notice but planned, not emergency I should add) to plug a missing part in that heart. The irony amused my family anyway.

Feeling the fear 😬

The words of Susan Jeffers of course so frequently applied to business but applicable in life too.

Admittedly I had been worried all week after being offered a late cancellation for an operation I’d been waiting on for ages.

Minor, heart and surgery aren’t words I would put comfortably together in the same phrase. Even when the medics tell you it’s a regular procedure for them, there’s something odd about interfering with organs in your body that appear to work just fine and signing a form accepting a small list of risks including infection, stroke and even death.

I kept thinking what if my surgeon had just had a bad few days of home-schooling too or been cut up by 1 of those “critical worker” white vans on our “empty roads”. And what about Covid. Irrational thoughts of course but that’s what can happen with time to think when the stakes seem high.

My son at 8 gave me better perspective. On looking at the encyclopedia to understand more about the functionality of the heart and my procedure, he said:

“So the heart’s like amazon. One side delivers boxes full of blood with oxygen. When they run out, then go back to collect more and the workers in the lungs fill them up and the heart puts more petrol in the vans”.

A better description than mine for sure. Oh, the digital delivery age we live in!

Lesson 1: Don’t allow fear to determine your decisions. Take it back to basics. Giving yourself a yes/no option can work wonders. I contemplated not signing but that really wasn’t an option.

Deferring to the experts 👩‍⚕️

It turned out I had been totally irrational of course.

Just as we are all experts at something in life, our amazing NHS staff are in their fields too. I opted for a local anaesthetic so I could be out quick but also watch my surgery. Scary but bloody amazing what medics can do. And the kit in those theatres, wow!

Muffled by my face mask, I think I asked them every odd question about what they were doing. Out of curiosity or a desire to control the situation I have no idea. Would I now buzz in the airport X-ray machine?; What material was my device was made of (metal or plastic)?; What tool would be used next?; Was the image on screen the camera, device, or a.n.other?; What type of stitch were they using? (Z suture apparently, not cross or running); Why was my surgeon wearing leopard print scrubs under his gown? (outfit of choice reserved for Liverpool apparently); and, how do you steer something on the end of a wiggling wire through an impossibly small catheter?

I bet they wished they’d give me general anaesthesia after all!

They humoured me though, they bantered and they completed everything safely and professionally – as experts do. Evidently, I’m a complete over-thinker and eternal planner. Analyse everything in life and hope to control a fair bit too (even counted the time after hearing the request for a 5 minute timer till the next drug refill). There are many times in life though, as well as in business, when we are not best-placed for a task. Deferring to the experts is a huge lesson even when we want to control what’s happening.

Lesson 2: Accept the things that are outside of your control and defer to the right experts to do the jobs they are trained to do.

Trust your instincts 🤞

Now by saying we must defer to the experts, I should stress that we should balance this with taking responsibility for our actions, our destiny and in this case our health. Some prefer to bury their heads in the sand when times get tough and subjects are challenging. Personally, I’d always rather pursue knowledge and understand the detail.

Though I reached the experts who have resolved my situation, it took a long while and a fair dose of perseverance. I rejected two years of being told not to join the “worried well” and that it was likely stress, menopause and even indigestion symptoms. Eventually, with the right expert, a congenital heart defect (ie from birth) and never known to me was diagnosed. Easily fixed but that may have caused issues in the future had I not found it.

Lesson 3: Trust your instincts but without allowing irrational thoughts to consume you. Above all, take responsibility for yourself.

Gratitude 🙏

One of things that stands out in hospital is that there are so many staff. So many varieties and colours of uniform and grade too. It sounds silly, I know, but the volume of staff is quite overwhelming, especially given the fact that the service hits regular headlines for being dramatically under-resourced. Everyone has jobs. They’re busy, though they endure criticism at times that they don’t appear to be. And then there’s the unexpected bit – the real calm. Granted, I was not in A&E or emergency surgery, but I’ve been in hospital before and also had three kids with all the related malarkey that entails and each time, it was still calm.

The volume of people in the health system is quite staggering. Not just staff, but patients too. I was one mere record but accessed the services of over 22 people in total and expensive equipment. This cost baffles me. And that was just that visit. The process leading up to that operation probably doubles the numbers I’ve encountered for one single issue.

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We are so very lucky in the UK to have this system on tap. 

I’m immensely grateful to each and every member of staff I encountered, from the senior surgeon and his merry band of theatre staff right through to the catering staff. As I received my first cuppa in a rather small teacup that I joked about with the catering chap and got extra custard cream biscuits perhaps for being polite and chatty (note: there are only four types of biscuit in hospital – custard creams, bourbons, digestives and occasionally ginger biscuits), I was reminded of my main moto in life to treat everyone with respect, regardless of their station. (My others by the way are:

  • Eat, drink and go to the loo whenever you get chance (that one is from backpacking days and having kids); and
  • When things don’t go to plan, after you’ve finished ranting, try to find something funny about the moment).

Lesson 4: Express gratitude to those around you and treat everyone with respect and fairness, regardless of their position.

Reflection 🤔

The interesting thing about having an operation, regardless of size or importance, and I guess this mirrors any hospital visit and especially during Covid, is that you are very alone. Despite any presence of friends or family (normally, in non Covid times I mean), folk in wards and day rooms, and lots of staff, you are completely in the moment and in your own thoughts. I’m pretty strong in my head but I thought of all the folk in hospital across the country who are very alone.

Time also passes very slowly in hospital. As I lay flat on my back for several hours in my fetching gown and paper knickers, I had a lot of time to listen, watch and soak up different experiences. People-watching has to be one of all-time favourite hobbies. Slightly tricky when you’re instructed to stay flat on your back and craning you’re neck up results in a scolding.

It’s probably a form of mindfulness but I actually enjoy absorbing the fine detail around me. In hospital, there’s always a clock showing the wrong time. TVs on the walls that aren’t switched on. And my biggest area of interest, the cabinets and equipment on trolleys. I just wanted to rifle through things to see what I could find and I particularly wanted to play with the giant smartboard in theatre.

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When you’re in hospital, you also get to know folk around you too – both patients and staff. Well, you do if you’re like me and chat to anyone. Must be that embedded networker in me. My kids are mortified that I do this.

One of the times I was detained in hospital relating to this particular 18-month heart journey was a case in point. After a very interesting blue light experience because I gave the wrong answer over the phone and the NHS 111 computer said ‘No!’ (along with ‘do not move, you are going to abandon your car in the middle of nowhere near your client’s office and will be collected by an ambulance’), I ended up on the cardiac ward. I looked over to see a work friend on one side and – as it later transpired – one of my husband’s pupil’s parents on the other.

Sharing gruesome stories and bonding over your worries is a fantastic distraction in hospital. When the doctor arrived though, he asked where I’d gone because of course I was not in my bed but instead over the other side having a chin-wag. I apologised and explained that I’d moved across to chat to folk I knew. Always networking! “Pity the folk that know you if this is where they end up,” he replied. Score for wit – 10 points.

Back to the moment though. This time round, I had for neighbours a police officer with a low pain threshold (so I heard, which made me feel extra brave) plus the most switched on 78 year old I could imagine – she knew all her medical info. As did I after a few hours beside her. That’s the thing in there, you see. You get to see and hear a lot of information. Those privacy curtains have been grossly mis-labelled. There’s no way you can whisper quietly behind them. You definitely can’t pee (or worse) silently. And you’re going to hear everyone’s phone conversations too. But, there seems to be an unwritten privacy code. You pretend not to look or listen and what goes on hospital tour, stays on tour I think.

You encounter a lot of staff but remember key people too. I can only liken the health system to education. Just like pupils remember key teachers who made their mark. And yet I imagine the other way round, you blend into the masses and only the best and worst cases are remembered by the professionals who just get on with their jobs.

Lesson 5: Widen your perspective. Stop, look, listen and absorb what is occurring peripherally as well as in your line of focus. Take time out of your business or daily routine to reflect and gain perspective.

Expect the unexpected ☔

This is my problematic goal. I’m my very own task-master, I over-estimate what I can achieve in the time, I write lists in A4 not A5 notebooks, and I have to remind myself to build in margin for error and buffer time for when things get taken out of your hands – when the unexpected arises.

For once though, I did it. Though I’ve known I was waiting on surgery for over a year, I didn’t know when it might arise. But I suspected it wasn’t far off when I was asked in November to check my dental hygiene was up to date (this is a critical precaution for any heart surgery).

In December, I decided, then shared with many folk my plan to take time off in January. Most assumed this was for an admin catch up, digital detox or even a holiday. Though admittedly there were some nice bits including 13th, 16th and 50th birthdays in my house, the primary reason was that I was expecting a number of challenges to raise their heads at once; tax return, home-schooling v3.0, physio on a frozen shoulder, second closure of the business centre I manage and the icing on the lockdown cake – heart surgery. I’m glad I’d had the foresight to build in some wriggle room because in January everything did hit!

Lesson 6: Build contingency time into your projects and for the unknown, give it your best guestimate based on accumulating as much information as you can.

Active listening 🦻

Perhaps the most interesting part of my whole experience is how it has been received by others and what this has taught me about the discipline of active-listening.

Let me state up front that I’m in no way perturbed by any of the following nor casting judgement on anyone for their reactions. If anyone recognises their traits, then I hope I don’t offend you. I merely find the study of human behaviour and communication absolutely fascinating. This one’s a biggie for me, so sorry, it’s a long one.

There have been some interesting reactions from my little experience.

When you share very personal stories, especially anything involving a medical event, a few things happen.

First, you generate a new status alert in the minds of others. Often it is inaccurate, reminiscent of how we make sweeping and almost instantaneous judgements of people in life by what we see and hear. Matters of the heart for example are generalised as BAD news.

Talk about heart surgery and we’re conditioned to think the worst without reading the detail. Now, I’m mindful of course that there are many people affected by sad experiences. I, like many, know plenty of folk afflicted by and even lost to heart issues. However, I also know many who have positive stories to share. I view mine as that. I’m lucky of course that I didn’t have to encounter anything sinister in the end and was able to get something fixed that I had been born with, though I didn’t know for 47 years.

What I’m keen to focus on here is not the subject itself but the behavioural traits that sharing personal/medical news can generate. The problem I feel is threefold – understanding, perspective and willingness to absorb the detail – or active engagement if you like.

Some consume the detail, become informed, and understand.

Some benchmark against their own life experiences or subject knowledge to draw their own conclusions.

And some don’t really consume at all. They skim-read – as we are all prone to doing. Come on, we all do it! We’re pushed for time and we’re reading for relevance. The WIIFM factor – will I be entertained, informed, find out news / facts / gossip. We live in a scrolling world of highlights, not detail, and the difference between those who understand and have perspective and those who don’t, IMHO, is willingness to actively engage.

The second behavioural pattern that arises when you share personal stories is the emotional reaction it creates, and I don’t just mean the basics of surprise, shock, sympathy, or concern. It is here that it gets interesting as a study of human behaviour.

Amidst those that see news being shared (as not everyone does), there are quite few types of reactions but I’m going to highlight just three sub-groups.

The first and larger sub-set of people are perturbed that they had not known as they would have offered support. I’m always in this group when I see folk facing a challenge.

The second and minority sub-set are plunged into a type of FOMO (fear of missing out). They feel a little hurt at not being told and even question why, sometimes with words of surprise or sarcasm.

And the third category are the folk who knew, but even within this group, there are still two factions.

Those who knew and remembered.

And then those who were told but have no recollection of it and swear blind that you never told them. I find this category particularly amusing because it reveals so much about the discipline of active listening, something I like to specialise in.

There were x people I had spoken to about my circumstances.

I have a memory like an elephant for minutiae and particularly the content of small chat. That is, after all, at the “heart” of what I do for a living – I excel at remembering and/or recording details that relate to relationship-building.

I know when and where I talked to people. And no, I didn’t do it for the experimental purposes of this article. I did it because along the way, sometimes the right circumstances arose to share info. And sometimes they just didn’t. Full stop.

What I find interesting is whether folk remembered and if not, why they didn’t. Either I was talking a foreign language or they were not actively listening.

When we speak to someone, we generally hope that we are being listened to. If we’re in the wrong setting, busy company (in events) or surrounded by kids (as I often am), the exchange can descend into surface chat or broken biscuit conversation so its plausible and expected that folk may not recall the facts. The responsibility falls to the speaker to ensure they have the attention of their audience – if being heard is their goal of course. When I choose to write on personal topics, such as this, much of the time I’m not expecting a reply. Though feedback or comments may be nice, my writing is for the purposes of expression, emptying my head of thoughts and perhaps even self-therapy. I don’t really care if it’s read or liked or not.

If I were speaking though, and especially in a work setting, I would hope to be heard. In a business environment when we are engaged in a 1-to-1 conversation, expectations are higher than in casual social settings and our basic need to be heard is more prevalent. In a networking event for example, I’d hope that folk would be listening to me because I would be listening to them. Granted, not everyone is good at remembering details but we can all strive to actively listen and if we have poor memories then let’s not forget the trusty pen and paper, note-taking device, phone app or CRM.

Lesson 7: To become a master of conversation and communication, work first on your active listening skills.

Closing thoughts 💭

Suffice to say, I’ve had a really interesting experience recently. Not sad or painful nor too scary but educational and enlightening.

Apart from a few “icky” bits, one of the hardest parts was (very oddly) having to shave with a frozen shoulder (shame they couldn’t fix that too) as I was not going to let any nurse take me on with a bic razor (groin access surgery btw not hairy chest if you’re currently perplexed). I’ll stop there with any further dignity-challenging stories before anyone splutters over their coffee. And one of the nicest parts was the friend and family banter over hospital lingerie and bodily functions with enough humour to keep me giggling for a lifetime (though laughing till you need a wee is not recommended when faced with a bed pan).

I’ve had more enforced downtime than I’d envisaged and I’ve disappeared from circulation for a while. I’ve attempted that Netflix binge thing and I’ve got out of home-schooling duties a few times which I loved and my three kids did too saying it was epic not having bossy mum around and couldn’t I have stayed in hospital longer. The cheek! Frustratingly, the discharge form hasn’t specified no home-schooling as a longer-term health precaution. Darn!

I’ll close by sharing why I chose to write this article for whoever may still be reading. I journal regularly (so the text was there anyway) and I have no issue sharing personal stories if there is any part of them that offers learning, support or even entertainment for others.

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My main prompt to write though came from an activity set for my 8-year old during an assembly in Children’s Mental Health Week run by BAFTA and Oak National Academy. The task was to think about how you express yourself. So we both set to it. He drew a picture (I think I’m the unhappy creature lower down getting an injection and the knife) and I wrote (a lot – this in fact). And I realised that writing was my outlet. Mainly for myself and only a fraction of it ever shared publicly because I don’t write to be listened to. For me, it is a channel of equal merit to talking. To express yourself; to process life’s ups and downs; to practice gratitude; and to find perspective. Talking is wonderful – and I love that too – but writing attracts less opinion and judgement and there’s no exhausting dialogue, visual feedback or having to repeat your story.

Lesson 8: Consider your outlet for expression. Whether its music, sport, art, reading, writing or another activity, may I encourage you to do more of it.

So, that brings me to the end of my long story with all its little lessons. If you’ve read this far, then you deserve an award too. Drop me a line and I’ll happily shout you a virtual coffee any time.

Thank you for reading!


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Kirsty James is a networking, relationship marketing and communications consultant. She is the Owner of Colony Networking, Manager of Lymm Business Centre, Curator of TEDx Warrington, and Co-host of LinkedinLocal Manchester and Warrington, Group Leader and Partner of SUBS Warrington, CoHost of KTS Women in Business, Founder of Think Family Matters, and Co-Host of SoupOTG Crowdfunding.

Kirsty facilitates, hosts and speaks at business development, networking and community events. She also offers consultancy services including business development, relationship marketing, lead generation, referral services, networking skills training and communication planning. Kirsty is a champion of effective business communication and relationship marketing and uses the power of networking and conversation to enable personal and business growth and community engagement.

For more info about Kirsty James and Colony events and services, click here

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